The Hinsdale middle schooler is the inspiration for Claudie Wells

By Maureen Callahan

Have you ever wondered where the inspiration for American Girl characters come from? Just ask Hinsdale Middle School student, Rio Lewis. Lewis is the muse for Claudie Wells, the newest American Girl. The accompanying story is set against the backdrop of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. “Claudie is different than any other American Girl of African-American descent. She is the first to have a positive back story,” Rio’s mother Didi relayed as I interviewed her daughter. “Claudie’s main problem is that she has too many talents,” she laughed. “Kind of like Rio!” See Rio’s big smile and you’ll understand why she was selected to be the inspiration for Claudie Wells, a sweet and energetic character with many gifts.

Claudie is searching for her greatest talent, as New York Times best-selling author, Brit Bennett, penned in the storybook that accompanies the doll. Hinsdale Magazine Contributing Editor Maureen Callahan interviewed Rio one day after school at Toni’s Patisserie & Café, about her modeling and acting career thus far. There’s little doubt she is on to big things!

HOW DID YOU GET INTO MODELING?
I started modeling when I was two years old. It’s kind of funny that I stayed with it because I used to cry when I was little whenever anyone brought out a camera. But one day that changed. Now I love the camera! When I was little, I tagged along on my brother RJ’s modeling jobs. We started doing commercials together. Our first one was for Chuck E. Cheese. We got to miss school and play there all day! We’ve done Humera ads together, too. It was fun because we would always see ourselves on TV. I’ve modeled for Kohl’s and Meier’s websites, and I’ve been on toy boxes and other things, too.

Lewis with Claudie in a 1920’s outfit gilded in gold

WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST CHALLENGING ABOUT ACTING AND MODELING?
Having to turn down roles I am offered due to scheduling. I tried out for the roll of Kate, one of the six main orphans in Annie. The audition was really fun! I went to New York for the callback and was offered the part. It would have been very hard to do that show, though, because I would have been on the road for nine months. We talked it over as a family. In the end, it would have just been too hard to miss a whole year of school. I would have had to constantly work with tutors. It would have been hard for my mom to be away from home with me for almost a year. I was also offered the role of Marta von Trapp in the Paramount Theater’s production of The Sound of Music. It was a very demanding schedule though, so I turned it down.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PROJECT THUS FAR?
American Girl was really fun. It’s kind of a dream job around here. When a new American Girl is released, they have lots of events at the flagship store on Rockefeller Plaza in New York. My brother RJ had a job in New York the week Claudie Wells was introduced, so my whole family went. It was so fun! We had lunch there. I got my hair done in the salon and they gave me an outfit to match Claudie’s. All of her clothes were designed on New York’s fashion row, so she has great style!

HOW DID YOU BECOME THE INSPIRATION FOR AMERICAN GIRL CLAUDIE WELLS?
At first, I didn’t even realize that I was the face of Claudie Wells. I model with an agency, but don’t always know where my face will appear. I’ve been on toy boxes and not even known it until the toy is in the store and someone says they saw me on the box. It’s kind of funny. That was what happened with American Girl. I was driving in the car with my mom and her friend called and said I was in the American Girl catalog! We didn’t even know.

ARE YOU SIMILAR TO CLAUDIE WELLS?
I’m similar in the fact that Claudie is good at lots of things. That’s actually what the story is about. She has so many talents that she is trying to figure out what she does best. At the photo shoot, they had me pose with a trumpet. I decided to try it out for real and now I play trumpet in the band at my school. I probably would have learned the violin if not for Claudie, because several of my friends play. But since I had tried the trumpet at the photo shoot and blew a few notes, I decided to play trumpet.

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DREAM ROLE/SHOW?
My dream role would be Angelica Hamilton, the daughter of Alexander Hamilton. I saw Hamilton on Broadway. It was amazing! I met the actor currently playing Hamilton afterward. He signed my playbill. It was so exciting! (Rio broke into singing excerpts from Hamilton). I also think it would be fun to be on Stranger Things, but I don’t know how that would happen, because I’m not allowed to be in the room if there’s anything scary. I also think it would be fun to be the villain in a superhero show!

WHAT IS YOUR IDEA OF A GOOD TIME?
I love to doodle and paint, but I wouldn’t say I’m an artist. I LOVE to sing! If I’m bored, I sing. When I am not bored, I sing. If I’m doing homework, I sing. I also love to dance. I’m really into floss dancing. I went to national finals in Las Vegas. We got to stay for a week, so that was fun. I like hip hop and ballroom and I compete in jazz, lyrical and tap. I really love to act, too. I’ve done some local productions of Muwana, Lion King and High School Musical.

WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY DO FOR THE HOLIDAYS?
One of my favorite things to do is bake all day long! I love to make different holiday treats to give to my friends and neighbors. My family always visits the Chriskindlmarket in the city. I love all the decorations and the festive feeling it brings.

FAVORITES THINGS
Color: Gold
Holiday: Earth Day, Christmas
School subject: Social Studies/History (particularly ancient Egypt). Sports Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Clothing Brand: Zara Kids, Lola and the Boys

*Photos courtesy by the Lewis family

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